- - Sunday, April 13, 2014

MOSCOW — When ailing Russian President Boris Yeltsin named his little-known prime minister, Vladimir Putin, as his “heir” to the Kremlin in 1999, few understood much — if anything — about the motivations and ambitions of the former KGB officer.

Mr. Putin may be vastly more famous as president almost 15 years later, but the world still struggles to figure out his strategies and intentions. As Russia and the West engage in a Cold War-style crisis over Ukraine, U.S. analysts acknowledge that they often have little idea what Mr. Putin is planning.

“We don’t even know what game he’s playing, much less his strategy. That’s why he’s outplaying us,” said Clifford Gady, a Russia researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The answer is simple to many Russians who credit Mr. Putin, 61, with dragging their country from the post-Soviet abyss and restoring some of its international prestige.

“Putin has no overall strategy. He has a mission: to save Russia and the Russians,” said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst. “He wants to see Russia become strong again.”

An acknowledged “hoodlum” in his youth, Mr. Putin took up martial arts at school to “assert my position in the pack.” His childhood fights instilled in Mr. Putin, now a black belt in judo and taekwondo, a credo that would come to define his long rule as Russia’s “national leader.”

“I realized that in every situation, whether I was right or wrong, I had to be strong. I had to be able to answer back,” he told a biographer.

After earning his university degree, Mr. Putin joined the KGB, an ambition born of Soviet-era films and books that glorified the secret police.

“I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education,” he later said.

But Mr. Putin was no Soviet superspy: He rose no higher than lieutenant colonel during his 16 years in the KGB and performed what he called “ordinary intelligence” work in Dresden, East Germany — his only foreign posting.

Despite his lack of notable success in the Soviet security service, Mr. Putin was a cut above the average KGB employee, said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor who now sympathizes with the opposition.

“Most KGB officers are unimaginative and speak somewhat banally about politics,” Mr. Pavlovsky said. “Putin isn’t like this at all. He doesn’t seem like your typical KGB officer.”

There appears little doubt, though, that Mr. Putin’s time in the KGB has a significant influence on his views and policies.

“Putin’s mindset is that of a Russian officer who ended up as the president of Russia,” said Mr. Markov, the analyst with Kremlin links. “And as an officer, he believes that a show of strength is more often than not the solution to problems.”

Protector of the ‘Family’

Unlike his tenure in the spy service, Mr. Putin’s rise to the pinnacle of state power was meteoric. After leaving East Germany in 1990, his KGB bosses appointed him assistant to the rector at Leningrad University, although his real job was to spy on foreign students.

A meeting with St. Petersburg’s mayor then led Mr. Putin to an offer — in circumstances shrouded in mystery — to the position of deputy mayor.

In 1996, Mr. Putin moved to Moscow to take up a minor post in the Kremlin bureaucracy and was soon taken under the wing of Yeltsin and his “Family,” the Kremlin’s inner circle.

With Yeltsin’s approval ratings close to zero and the threat of international criminal investigations into suspected corruption looming, the president and his entourage needed someone they could trust to ensure their safety. Mr. Putin was seen as a reliable yes-man.

In July 1998, Mr. Putin returned to the world of the secret police when Yeltsin named him head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the KGB’s successor. As FSB head, Mr. Putin impressed the Family by blocking criminal investigations that threatened members of Yeltsin’s entourage. Just a year later, in August 1999, Yeltsin promoted Mr. Putin to prime minister.

Few paid attention to Mr. Putin’s appointment or his speech as he accepted the post because he was the erratic Yeltsin’s fifth prime minister in 18 months.

But anyone listening carefully to his acceptance speech would have heard the statement that has remained the cornerstone of Mr. Putin’s rule.

“Russia has been a great power for centuries,” he said tersely. “And it remains one.”

The presidential stage

Although Yeltsin said he would like Mr. Putin to succeed him as president, there was little to suggest that the rookie prime minister would prove more than a footnote in post-Soviet Russia’s history.

“Do you see Putin as president?” Russia’s respected broadsheet Kommersant asked a range of political figures in the days after Yeltsin’s announcement. Not a single respondent said yes.

But Mr. Putin proved the skeptics wrong. After a series of explosions left more than 300 people dead in Moscow and other Russian cities in the fall of 1999, he blamed the attacks on militants from Chechnya and sent troops into the volatile, mainly Muslim republic.

“If they’re in the airport, we’ll kill them there,” Mr. Putin raged. “If we find them in the toilet, we’ll waste them in the outhouse.”

It was the first in a series of earthy remarks that would cement his image as a tough-talking, tough-acting politician.

Mr. Putin’s no-nonsense handling of the Chechen crisis made his ratings soar. In the March 2000 presidential elections, he triumphed in the first round.

One year into his first term, in 2001, Mr. Putin met President George W. Bush at a summit in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

“I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy,” Mr. Bush said. “I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

The summit triggered hopes that Moscow and Washington could patch up their differences on NATO expansion into Eastern Europe and U.S. missile defense plans.

“Bush’s style had a big influence on Putin,” said Mr. Pavlovsky, the former Kremlin spin doctor. “Putin liked how Bush acted on a far-reaching scale without being afraid of the consequences. He also saw that he wasn’t afraid to go to war, if he felt it was necessary.”

But the presidents’ personal affinity for each other would not be sufficient to overcome Mr. Putin’s growing anger over issues such as the war in Iraq and NATO’s bombing of fellow Slavic nation Serbia.

He also was insulted by NATO’s refusal to take into serious consideration his proposal for Russia to eventually join the military alliance, Mr. Pavlovsky said.

“Putin believes that the United States, despite its talk of possible military cooperation with Moscow, never wanted to treat Russia as an equal partner,” he said.

Influenced by Ilyin

Since his return to the Kremlin for a third term in May 2012, Mr. Putin’s frustration over what he sees as Western arrogance has resulted in increasingly strident rhetoric from the Kremlin and its supporters.

This rhetoric reached fever pitch when the United States and its allies backed the protesters who drove Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February. For Mr. Putin, the toppling of Mr. Yanukovych, a pro-Russia leader, brought closer the Kremlin’s nightmare of NATO troops in neighboring Ukraine.

“Putin believes that the West is not as strong as it once was, and that it wants to strengthen itself to Russia’s detriment,” said Mr. Markov, the analyst with Kremlin ties. “He sees the events in Ukraine as part of the West’s attempt to bring him down.”

Some analysts have suggested that much of Mr. Putin’s thinking is influenced by Ivan Ilyin, a religious and political philosopher exiled by Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin. Mr. Putin has quoted Ilyin’s work in his speeches, and one of Ilyin’s books was reportedly on a reading list sent to regional governors by the Kremlin this year.

In one of his works, Ilyin insisted that Russia possessed a “mysterious ancient power” that enabled it to regain glories after periods of state collapse. For Mr. Putin, who once called the breakup of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical tragedy” of the 20th century, the attractions of Ilyin’s thinking are obvious.

His reported enthusiasm for Ilyin’s writings has led some analysts to warn that Mr. Putin’s actions are likely to become increasingly unpredictable.

Others suggest this is an image Mr. Putin seeks to use to his advantage.

“It is convenient to be considered dangerous, or even crazy” said Mr. Pavlovsky. “After all, the West wouldn’t be negotiating with Putin now over Ukraine’s future if they considered him to be a predictable, reserved politician.”

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